Prof Liz Thomas, Dr David Allan and Prof Fiona Hallett
The #Ibelong project is funded by the European Commission through the Erasmus+ programme. Edge Hill University is working collaboratively with partners in the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Malta to design, deliver and evaluate a suite of interventions intended to improve the belonging of diverse students in higher education. In particular we are focusing on students who are first in their family, from ethnic minorities or have a ‘migrant background’.
Previous research has demonstrated that students’ retention and success in higher education are influenced by their engagement in their HE experience, and by their sense of belonging (Thomas 2012), but that some groups of students find it more difficult to engage and belong than others (Thomas et al 2017).
Student engagement and belonging are closely related concepts, as engagement generates belonging. Engagement is now a widely used term in the HE sector, but it is a slippery concept, often without a shared definition even within a single institution or department. Broadly, it points to students playing a more active role in their learning and wider student experience.
Belonging refers to the relational and emotional aspects of students’ student experience, and we discovered that effective interventions develop students’ sense of belonging through encouraging supportive relationships with peers; fostering meaningful interaction between staff and students; developing students’ capacity (knowledge, skills, confidence and identity) to be successful HE learners; and an HE experience which is relevant to their current interests and future goals.
To reach all students we have found it more effective to focus on engagement and belonging in academic programmes of study. Students’ belonging is usually related to their academic course or discipline, rather than to the institution as a whole; it is also the site where students develop their learner identity; and crucially it is a key part of the student experience that we have the ability to directly shape. Furthermore, our research has identified the importance of utilising mainstream activities that all students participate in, rather than adding on additional activities, that many of the very students we want to engage, will opt out of. Thus, the academic sphere is the most important site for nurturing engagement which creates a sense of belonging, through inclusive learning and teaching.
The #Ibelong project has developed three interventions to develop students’ belonging. The first, led by Edge Hill University is Dialogue Days. The aim of the Dialogue Days is to bring together a whole cohort of students with their teaching staff, and through a series of activities develop a safe and interactive space in which to talk about diversity and how it connects to student success. At Edge Hill in 2019-20 we have been working with the Primary Education programme, which has 330 students in year 1.
The objectives of the first dialogue day were to:
- Communicate and demonstrate institutional and programme commitment to diversity and success.
- Allow students to engage and learn about diversity, resilience and alternative strategies to be successful during their study.
- Enable academic staff to develop insight into the diversity of the cohort of students entering their programme.
- Improve student engagement and belonging, retention and success.
We utilised the Student Academic Mentors (SAMs) to develop and deliver the four hour session, together with the team of researchers. Activities included lots of sharing of personal experiences by staff and SAMs, and opportunities for students to get to know each other and work together, including taking photographs about belonging on campus.
The final activity asked students to write: “I want you to know this about me…”; and “You can support me to be successful by…” and make it into a snowball or aeroplane and send it anonymously to the front of the room. Through this process we received a huge amount of useful information from the students about their challenges and what they wanted from the academic programme team. We shared this information with the course team, and personal tutors in particular. Some examples are provided in Table 1 below. This demonstrates how trust was developed early on, and students felt safe and able to share concerns about starting a professional education programme.
|I want you to know this about me…||You can support me to be successful by…|
|I have started uni before and left because of anxiety.||Supporting me with anxiety and keeping an eye on me.|
|I get really easily anxious and can make myself sick from worry at times.||Reassuring me with things throughout the year.|
|I have anxiety and often have trouble introducing myself to new people.||Simply say hello if I look lost, unsure or alone, please.|
|I will throughout my 3 years here ask millions of questions. I am very confident but, also very unsure at times.||Answering all my questions happily.|
|It has been a good while since I had a decent English, Science and Mathematics lesson, so I will need a lot of help when it comes to assignments, etc.||Perhaps just give me a lot of guidance on how I should go about these things.|
|If sometimes I seem quiet or awkward or a bit weird it’s just because I’m socially awkward and I don’t know how to react so please don’t take it personally.||Giving me space and knowledge I need to grow and learn at EHU.|
|I am a mature student who hasn’t been in education for seven years; this makes me bloody terrified about what is to come.||Being patient and prepared to answer ‘stupid’ questions.|
|I get confused over the simple things.||Making instructions as simple as possible.|
|I should be able to belong, but I’m stressed about it||Encouraging me to push myself.|
|I am a single parent who doesn’t always believe that she is good enough||Listening to me when I have concerns or doubts, and by understanding the conflicting issues I face.|
|I’m really shy naturally||Creating opportunities for us to work on our confidence|
|I struggle with academic writing||Making the instructions for writing clear and guide me when needed.|
|I am quite shy and will worry about asking for help.||Asking if I’m OK.|
The other activities are Team Teacher Reflection, led by the Erasmus University and ECHO diversity specialists in the Netherlands, and Community Mentors, led by Osnabruck University in Germany. In March colleagues from the Primary Education team had the opportunity to reflect on the diversity of their students and develop strategies to improve inclusion and belonging. We are also looking at how we can develop the mentoring system to enable students to create learning communities to improve their independent learning experiences.
All of the interventions are to be evaluated using programme evaluation tools: theory of change and logic chains. These tools help to clarify the ways in which interventions are intended to operate, the impact they aim to achieve in the longer term and intermediate outcomes. We will be examining the immediate benefits of interventions, as well as the medium term changes to student and staff behaviours, and the longer term impact on belonging, retention, attainment and progression. The evaluation utilises a mixed methods design, combining focus groups with a survey about belonging. While the Erasmus + programme is practically oriented, the evaluation research allows us to develop research publications in academic journals too.
Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: Final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Thomas, L., Hill, M., O’ Mahony, J. & Yorke, M. (2017) Supporting student success: strategies for institutional change. What Works? Student Retention & Success programme final report, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.